Columbia University

Initiatives

Science Initiative

No university is great without superior programs in the natural sciences. At Columbia University, we have outstanding faculty who are leaders in many scientific disciplines, as well as a long tradition of attracting top students into our instructional programs. Over the last fifteen years, we have been rebuilding some of our most distinguished departments – including Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and Mathematics – many of which had been leading centers of research for long stretches of the twentieth century. Although we have made substantial progress, we need to persevere in our work and further raise the distinction of our natural science departments, as well as the visibility and quality of our science programs for both undergraduate and graduate students.

While these broad goals direct our long-term planning, we are currently making significant investments to attain prominence in new areas that involve interdisciplinary collaboration in the sciences, including nanoscience, molecular biology, and chemical biology, and providing the necessary infrastructure for such partnerships. In the natural sciences, biological questions are at the core of much current scientific research in areas ranging from the molecular cell to the functioning of the brain, from the discovery of new drugs to the development of a new generation of computational devices. At the same time, several of our groups in biological chemistry are bringing fundamental experimental or computational research programs to bear on medically relevant questions, addressing structure and function for a variety of biological molecules, and designing novel ways to probe and regulate physiological pathways. As a result, top science is increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary.

Indeed, the pressing environmental issues – for many already pressing crises – of our time make it even more critical that we support the high level of research and teaching in our Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (one of our most highly rated departments) and continue to build our newest department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. And in both our basic science departments and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia University has some of the true luminaries in the area of nanotechnology, the design of ever more miniature circuits, ultimately based on single molecules.

Proximity is naturally crucial for developing any of these collaborations and requires active encouragement, as well as new space that facilitates interaction across scientific disciplines. One of our most important priorities has been the planning and building of the new Northwest Science Building on the corner of Broadway and 120th Street. The building, linked to the adjacent Chandler and Pupin halls, will provide high-quality research space for molecular level exploration of two interlinking themes: biological phenomena, chemical biology and biophysics, the one, and nanoscience and the creation of nanodevices, the other. The lower floors of the building will house an integrated modern electronic science library, with a significant amount of high-quality study space, classrooms, and a café.

The Northwest Science Building will have a unique impact in developing interdisciplinary research and pedagogy, especially in areas involving biological imaging, chemical biology, and nanoscience. The building will also become a visible enhancement to the experiences of students at Columbia, engaging students whether or not they are majoring in the sciences as they make use of the library, café, and information commons. Jose Rafael Moneo has been engaged as the design architect and the completion date is expected to be in the fall of 2010.

The new building promises to transform not just the way we do science on the Morningside campus but the entire corner of our campus, with a dramatic entry point for those who will now be commuting back and forth from 29 Claremont, Knox, and before long, Manhattanville. In regard to Manhattanville, we are very pleased to be involved in collaborative planning around the major new initiative in neuroscience with Tom Jessell, Eric Kandel, and Richard Axel from the Medical Center along with colleagues here in the Arts and Sciences in departments as varied as Psychology, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Art History. The enormous and generous gift from Dawn Green for the new center for Mind, Brain, and Behavior has made these plans come alive in a very dramatic way.

The Northwest Science Building will make a substantial difference, both through the new space it will provide for interdisciplinary work and because it will allow the progressive renovation and reallocation of spaces in existing buildings to support the natural sciences generally. Along with the new neuroscience building in Manhattanville, Columbia is positioned once again to be one of the foremost global leaders in scientific research and teaching.